Reluctant as I had been to jump on the bandwagon, the day came when I spontaneously decided to give Netflix a chance and to subscribe to the service shortly after the launch of the much awaited (although still very poor in the offer, if you ask me) Polish version of their site. It is time, or rather the constant lack of it, that’s always been my ultimate excuse, but despite the vast selection of crappy content, not worth a single minute of my attention, I happen to find real treasures (eg. “Sense 8”, why, oh why did it have to be cancelled for heaven’s sake!) and Netflix does not stop to surprise me every once in a while with their original productions.
The recently released title “To the Bone”, starring the ever-so-gorgeous Lilly Collins and, wait for it, Keanu Reeves had immediately ended up on ‘My List’ and I had been eagerly awaiting the release ever since. As someone struggling with eating disorders almost my entire life, I did feel a mix of emotions before I sat down with my partner and pushed the play button, excitement and fear predominating and combined with sheer curiosity. Biased though I am, for obvious reasons, here’s my personal view on the problem and the way Netflix presented it. ( NOTE: may contain spoilers!)
To briefly outline the plot, we meet the protagonist, young artist (of course she’s an artist!) named Ellen during the therapy session for girls affected by anorexia nervosa, where she effortlessly manifests her feisty, cocky even, nature. Heavily kholed eyed, bones hidden under an oversized blouse, a messy cap (indoor places or outside, doesn’t matter), huge sunglasses – you could’t ask for more typical depiction of an anorexic girl. Needless to say she’s white, young and pretty, while the race-and-gender-equality obsessed activists would rather see her coloured. And gay, obviously. Nevertheless, as the story unfolds we learn that her mom abandoned her dad and eloped with another woman (yep, you got it right!) and now Ellen is going to live with her quirky stepmother, her daughter and, supposedly, the always-absent dad, who actually never appears, but is just talked about. Due to her bad condition, Ellie is set to a treatment facility where, surrounded by a merry bunch of patient affected by eating disorders and guided by an “unconventional” Dr Beckham (played by Reeves) she’s supposed to miraculously recover.
Not going far beyond stereotypes, how could the authors resist the temptation of including a Prince Charming, in this case, a fellow anorexic, ballet dancer Luke, with whom she develops a bit deeper connection… Very well, moving on and ignoring my initial sigh of disappointment, I was curious of how the whole story was going actually to end and what message would it try to transmit. Even though the course of events did not come as a surprise, neither did the movie avoid some predictable scenarios (eg. the pregnant girl and her tragic loss) and clichés, there are also positive aspects worth enumerating. Having read so many scathing reviews I feel like both, contradicting and supporting some of the most prevalent opinions, so let’s cut to the chase – first and foremost, the whole raging over the petition to take off the show, because of how ‘triggering’ it might be for people with eating and body image problems is ridiculous.
I mean, isn’t it just very sad an assumption that people are, in general, unable to think independently? Should every form of art showing ‘bad’ behaviour be banned? And how is „To the Bone” „glamourizing” eating disorders – don’t ask me. I suppose that what may work as a „trigger” is how openly the ill practices of girls with distorted perception are shown on screen, but judging by the firsthand opinion of people who have never experienced any such disorder, some scenes revealing the eerie behaviour do work as an eye-opener („Has she just really tasted the food and spat it all out?!”). Tested on the fellow watchers.
As for somebody struggling with ED, trust me, we’ve all been there, done that.
Oh, and I am sure you’ve seen all the criticism of Lilly Collins for loosing weight to better get into the character’s shoes, (suddenly everybody is overly concerned about her former anorexic experience) and accusing Netflix of promoting people at very low weight (also „triggering” and inappropriate)… Well, I rest my case. Although, the passing reference to the girl who killed herself, „inspired” by Ellie’s artwork published on Tumblr, shows that we are surrounded by extremely vulnerable people, on whom certain content will, indeed, have extremely harmful effect. Allow me not to express my opinion on such individuals, for I don’t want this blog to be suspended. Period.
Another common view is that “all the anorexic patients, with one male exception,are young, attractive, middle-class white women, when the illness affects a far broader demographic.” Excuse me, but didn’t I just see a glimpse of this chubby, black girl, munching on peanut butter? Or am I suffering from delusions (surely as a result of constant malnourishment)? I dare say that they actually did a good job here, presenting different personalities and not ALL of them were emaciated, but rather representing the vast variety of eating disorders in all its shapes and forms. And wasn’t Ellie supposed to be on the brink of collapse?
Sure thing, it may happen even to patients with „normal” weight, but why can’t we make the protagonist dying as a result of starvation? Oh, let me guess, young girls will think she’s so pretty, so frail, so what, even if she dies, at least she dies beautiful. So starving may actually be a pretty cool choice for a lifestyle. Fiddlesticks. In fact one of the biggest assets of the movie is that it does NOT put all the blame on the media and the omnipresent ideal, unrealistically thin body image as the root of all evil. On the contrary, it focuses on the background, the underlying cause of the sickness, mostly stemming from complicated family relations and troubled adolescence. “Every body has a history(…)”* and it bears life’s burdens, becomes one, big scarf in itself. The body will not necessarily be the root of the problem, but the instrument of self-inflicted harm, a manifestation of the turmoil that we carry deep inside.
It’s not all roses though and many a times I felt simply disgruntled. Dr Beckham’s methods were everything but innovative („I know what you’re trying to do. Life’s beautiful and all that…shit”), and, permit me to express my opinion, Keanu fails to deliver a convincing performance. The characters could be more developed and less one-dimensional, yet I appreciate the depiction of Ellie’s family members (selfish weaklings, treating her like a problem that needs to be dealt with for the sake of their good conscience). Ellie did not strike me as particularly likeable, but she was not supposed to, in fact, I could easily relate to her „don’t give a shit” attitude and utter indifference. Not to mention that I loved the way Lilly Collins portrayed a mentally troubled girl (her fine acting was especially visible in short, fleeting moments, like the look on her face while stepping on the scales). That being said, I truly hoped for more insight into the protagonist’s mind and the movie does not bother to go beyond the surface.
„Courage is a small coal that you keep swallowing”
As for the ending, I’ve been chewing over it for a while and I still cannot decide, whether I’d rather see Ellie die as a result of her obstinacy, or if I’m happy with the less dramatic turn of events. Thank God they spared us the typical „and they live happily ever after”, cock-and-bull story, at least the romantic part seemed credible and Ellie’s relationship with Luke quite real. The worst case scenario would be if he came up as knight in shining armour, courageously saving his princess from self-destruction. Fret not! In the end, she decides to get back to undergo treatment once again, this time on her own volition. Too bad that I simply couldn’t believe in her suddenly discovered motivation. While it’s true that you have to hit rock bottom to wake up and burst your bubble, Ellie’s „epiphany” moments left me pretty much unaffected and half-hearted, so did the “poignant” scene with the mother feeding her „little daughter” (ok, it actually pissed me off – here she goes again, appease her guilty conscience).
Notwithstanding all its flaws, „To the Bone” tackles upon a serious issue, too easily and too often swept under the rag. Perhaps it is a failed attempt to get into the crux of the matter, offering a mere smattering, a half-baked, saccharine product, but the (not so) subliminal message is just about right and shows the tragedy, the endless loneliness of people suffering from ED’s of all sorts – there’s nobody out there to do the job for you. You are your only saviour, so grow a pair and swallow that coal.
I very much look forward to seeing more productions like this one, only done better and with more substance. Netflix, I count on your creativity!
* Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, book by Roxane Gay (quotation)